Polish nationalist minister: Visit to Jewish monument "one of the most difficult decisions" of my life

Roman Giertych disassociated himself from his party's anti-Semitic past and roots.

Giertych 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Giertych 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The ultra-nationalist Polish Education Minister who heads a far-right anti-Semitic political party said Wednesday that his decision to attend a memorial for hundreds of Jews killed by their Polish neighbors during World War Two was "one of the most difficult decisions" of his life. The highly unusual participation of Education Minister Roman Giertych at the memorial in the Polish town of Jedwabne came just three days after the Israeli Ambassador to Poland publicly announced that he was shunning the minister due to his party's anti-Semitic ideology, and was widely seen as an effort to prove that he himself was not an anti-Semite. "My decision to go to Jedwabne was one of the most difficult decisions of my life," Giertych said in an interview in his Warsaw office. "It is very difficult for my electorate to understand such a visit," he added, noting that his "gesture" to the State of Israel, which he said carried a personal political risk, has already been criticized in certain circles. "It was necessary to finish this discussion about Polish anti-Semitism, which we have to cut off," he said, explaining his reasons for participating in the ceremony. "We have to cut off this path, this obsession, and to create a new future," he added. In the interview, the populist Education Minister, whose grandfather was a notorious anti-Semite, and whose party's youth wing has been known to make Nazi salutes and chant Nazi slogans, disassociated himself from his party's anti-Semitic past and roots. "I did not always agree with my grandfather," he offered, suggesting that holding him responsible for his party's roots was the equivalent of holding the Conservative Party in Britain responsible for what happened under Cromwell. "I am not going to hide that in my closest circle a lot of stupid statements have been said," he responded when asked about past comments made by a party colleague denying that Auschwitz was an extermination camp, and that Jews there had more bread than the Poles. The Polish Education Minister, who was appointed to his position in February as part of the government's coalition with two fringe parties and who also serves as deputy prime minister, suggested that some Poles had a psychological complex which made it difficult for them to empathize with Jewish victims of the Holocaust due to their own suffering during World War II. "It is difficult to demonstrate sympathy and compassion when you yourself suffered a lot," he opined. "There is a certain psychological difficulty that we face that will have to be overcome." The Education Minster asserted that it was impolite and non-diplomatic of Israeli Ambassador to Poland David Peleg to say that he would boycott him, adding that the ambassador was interfering in Polish internal affairs. Peleg said last week that it was "incomprehensible" that issues like Israeli-Polish youth exchanges and Holocaust issues should be directed by the head of an anti-Semitic party. The Polish Government is expected to announce shortly the establishment of a special department dealing with the issue that will work out of the prime minister's office, in an effort meant both to resolve the Israeli criticism as well as to further broaden the youth exchanges between the two countries. The appointment of the 35-year-old extremist party leader, whose party won only 8 percent of the vote in last year's Polish election, to such a prestigious government position has caused dismay among Israeli and Jewish officials. The concern is compounded by the fact that the Polish Education Ministry is charged with joint youth programs between Israeli and Poles, interactions which are considered to be a cornerstone of future relations between the two countries. Giertych's grandfather was a staunch advocate of anti-Jewish boycotts, with his party rooted in a nationalist movement that existed between the two World Wars which succeeded in both segregating and limiting the number of Jews at Polish Universities. The Polish Government's decision to make a union with two of Poland's small populist parties, including the League of Polish Families, instead of joining forces with a competing center-right party, has been criticized in both Poland and Europe, where the focus of criticism has been on the minister's anti-homosexual views. The discord over the move follows a decade of burgeoning Israeli-Polish relations, with governmental relations between the two countries now considered to be among the best in Europe. "The appointment of Giertych is first and foremost detrimental for the country," said Professor Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a former Polish Foreign Minister who is both an honorary Israeli citizen and has been recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. The 84-year-old Bartoszewski, who is considered to be Poland's senior intellectual and is a staunch advocate of Israel, said that he turned down an offer by the Polish Government to serve a third term as foreign minister so as not to sit in a government with Giertych. "It is bad for the country that a right-wing party with a fascist-like approach is charged with the subject of education," he concluded. But he suggested that the damage would be limited, since the government's tenure would be short-lived.